When you inhabit an alternative reality—let’s call it the Metro North Zone (like the Twilight Zone but with better landscaping)—sometimes it is hard to understand that we are living in deeply troubled economic times. Like the war in Afghanistan, I read about it in the paper, but I don’t really see the Great Recession, at least beyond what I am aware of in my own poor efforts to deal with a fractured family budget.
On some morning commutes I can be forgiven for thinking that everyone in New York is gainfully employed at a Wall Street bank, so crowded is my Hudson Line rail car with pinstripes and oversized valises. There are shabbier shmoes, too, on the train, we of the business casual and frayed-khaki brigade. But when we stumble sleepily onto the morning train, we leave our class differences behind and proceed with as much grace as possible into Manhattan with our fellows from the financial sector. Hardly anyone will be caught thumbing through Das Kapital on the ride in, and class warfare is mostly limited to the occasional overextended elbow while passing down the aisle.
We don’t often speak beyond pleasantries. What perhaps most unites this little commuting community, beyond our bleary eyes and morning coffees, is the simple fact that we have jobs, a reason to get up in the morning and head into Manhattan. The ones who are not on the train, the ones wearing their khakis or pinstripes during shorter commutes to the local library to search the job listings, are the invisible suburban casualties of the Great Recession.
They are now perhaps less invisible. After poring over recent data from the Census Bureau, the Brookings Institution reported in September that many of the nation’s poor have moved to the suburbs. There are now 15.4 million people living below the poverty line in the ’burbs—a 53 percent increase in just 10 years—surpassing the 12.7 million in the cities, where most of us think the poor live.
In recent years, working class families followed jobs and the American dream into the suburbs. Now beaten down by two recessions that first obliterated manufacturing jobs, then took out construction and retail work, the new poor find themselves living the current national nightmare, unemployed and stranded in the suburbs with little access to the social service infrastructure that has long been established in U.S. cities.
Granted, the folks Brookings is tracking are not the commuters who have fallen off my train—yet. These latest, middle-class victims of the Great Recession have farther to fall before they pass any poverty thresholds. I doubt that fact gives much comfort to the guys gathering at the library.
During a recent Mass, the assistant pastor pointedly asked us to remember the nation’s economic casualties wherever they are. He was perhaps responding to a request from New York’s Arch-bishop Timothy Dolan, who has noted with alarm the nation’s record numbers in poverty. More than 15 percent of all Americans now live below the poverty line—46 million people. In a recent letter to bishops in his capacity as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Dolan urged priests around the country to preach on the crisis.
“These numbers bring home to us the human costs and moral consequences of a broken economy that cannot fully utilize the talents, energy and work of all our people,” Archbishop Dolan wrote.
It is hard to know how to respond as an individual to this ongoing economic disaster except to write a check if you can and perhaps remind your local Congressmember to make poverty-reduction a priority. I know at the very least I will not take my seat on the train for granted anymore.